WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has picked the widow of slain civil rights icon Medgar Evers to deliver the invocation at his swearing-in this month, believed to be the first time a woman and a non-clergy member has been chosen to deliver perhaps America's most prominent public prayer.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the murder of Evers, who was the NAACP's Mississippi field secretary at the time of his death. Myrlie Evers-Williams went on to become chairman of the NAACP in the 1990s and spent decades fighting to win a conviction of her late husband's assailant.
"I would imagine that even people who are made somewhat uncomfortable by the allusions to religion in such public moments will find an invocation by the widow of a martyr to be moving and poignant," said author Jon Meacham, who has written on religion in American history. "This is as unifying a gesture as a president could make, it seems to me."
The invocation comes at the start of the inaugural ceremony, and the benediction comes at the end. The inaugural committee Tuesday plans to announce that the benediction will be given by conservative evangelical pastor Louie Giglio, founder of the student-focused Passion Conferences, which draw tens of thousands of people to events around the world. An inaugural official said Giglio was picked in part because of his work raising awareness about modern-day slavery and human trafficking.
The contrasting choices are typical of a president who has walked a sometimes complicated path when it comes to religion — working to be inclusive to the point that sometimes critics have questioned his faith.
Decades ago, few Americans paid attention to the clergy (who were always mainline Protestants) who stood on the podium with the incoming president, or to which scripture the president put his hand on as he swore the oath of office. But as the country has become more religiously diverse, faith and politics have become far more explosive, and such official moments are now scrutinized.